"SIL" stands for Summer Institute of Linguistics and is an organization that works with language development (i.e., they help communities keep their languages alive through such endeavors as helping speakers develop a writing system for their language or a curriculum in school for their language). As such an organization, they also work on promoting linguistic tools that make it easier for linguists to work with data and analysis; they develop programs, but they also include links and research on other programs that might be helpful. One development of theirs is a set of IPA unicode keyboards.
The unicode in that title is important because it means that whatever you type into your document using the unicode keyboard will be translatable to any document that accepts unicode fonts, which is pretty much every computer application. As some students may have noticed, sometimes when you type in IPA, not all fonts or applications will recognize the symbols and will produce empty boxes or off-looking characters that you didn't intend to have in your document. If you're using a unicode font and enable unicode encoding on whatever you're working on (e.g., a webpage, a paper), the symbols will show up beautifully. If you're interested in learning more about unicode, you can visit the Unicode Consortium webpage.
To use one of the SIL IPA Unicode keyboards, you first need to download one onto your computer. The site offers keyboards that are compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux, so make sure you click on the right keyboard that will work with your computer's operating system. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention one of the most student-friendly aspects about the SIL keyboards: they're free. The keyboards are pretty amazing because they not only offer you the ability to type all the IPA symbols of world languages (not just English), but they also offer you the ability to add in suprasegmentals and diacritics. When you click on the link above, you'll be taken to a site that looks like this:
Again, make sure you click on the keyboard that will work with your computer's operating system. For every keyboard, the site also offers downloadable PDF guides that will help you through the downloading and installing processes and will show you how to use the the keyboard once it's installed on your computer. An important note on the website is that you have to restart your computer after installing the keyboard to be able to use it; otherwise, you'll get frustrated when your new cool keyboard doesn't do what it's supposed to do (that piece of advice is from personal experience). Use those PDF guides--they'll do a much better job than I could hope to do of explaining everything you'll need to do to get your keyboard in place.
Before you start using your newly installed keyboard, you'll also need to make sure you have a font that will work with all the new IPA capabilities your keyboard offers you. While most fonts will work with the IPA symbols themselves, not all fonts are capable of working with the diacritics and suprasegmentals that SIL's IPA keyboards offer. To get the most out of your new keyboard, SIL offers a free font download of Duolos SIL, a font that looks similar to Times New Roman and has the compatibility with all the IPA goodies.
When the keyboard is installed on your computer, it allows your regular keyboard to function as an IPA keyboard (you can easily switch between the two in your computer's keyboard language options). The keyboard works for the most part like your typical keyboard (e.g., if you press the t-key, a t will appear on the screen), but it has "deadkeys" that allow you to do combinations to produce the IPA symbols. For example, if you hit the = button, a yellow box will appear on your screen. The letter you press next on the keyboard will determine what IPA symbol will appear; here is an image from the guide that comes with the keyboard:
There are several more of these deadkeys that make it possible to get all the IPA symbols and notations onto one keyboard. About now, you may be asking yourself, "But what if I want to actually put the = sign into my document? If it's a deadkey, how does that work?" If you simply hit the spacebar after typing in =, the = will stay in your document. Here is another image to show you what I mean by "deadkey":
The top line is what happened when I hit = and then the spacebar; the middle line is what happened when I hit = followed by i; the bottom line is what it looks like when I hit a deadkey--the yellow box around the symbol lets me know I've hit a deadkey and that pressing another key in the combination will change the symbol (i.e., the = sign will disappear and be replaced by another symbol). It's a pretty cool system.
To show you just some of the capabilities of the keyboard, here is an image of the IPA consonants and how you produce them using the IPA keyboard:
The keyboard is an amazing tool, and it's even customizable--you can download programs that will allow you to change keystrokes or even add more. For anyone who wants to be able to type in IPA without needing to use an online tool, without needing to interrupt their typing by clicking on a box above a text box, and without needing to leave the document being worked on to type into a text box and then copying and pasting it.
ɑɪ ʤʌst swɪʧt tu mɑɪ ɑɪ pi eɪ kibɔrd ænd æm tɑɪpɪŋ wɪθ mɑɪ kəmpjutər lɑɪk rɛgjulər
How cool is that?